Book Review: Mishnah and the Words of Jesus

Midrash is the art of keeping an ancient text alive. The Rabbis were masters of drawing water from stone, of transforming the most mundane passages of Torah into luminous nuggets of spirituality.

-Ismar Schorsch
“Accountability,” pg 330, March 8, 2003
Commentary on Torah Portion Pekudei
from his book Canon Without Closure: Torah Commentaries

Probably anyone who has ever focused on the teachings of Jesus is aware that he was a product of the religious milieu that emerged in the 1st century of the present era.

-Roy B. Blizzard
“Chapter 3: A Good Eye”
Mishnah and the Words of Jesus (Kindle Edition)

I sometimes complain that certain teachers and scholars in the realm of Messianic Judaism periodically “flirt” with taking some of the various texts compiled in the Talmud and anachronistically applying them, some composed many centuries after the Apostolic Era, to the letters of Paul and the teachings of Jesus. If we were to assume that the author of, for example, the Zohar (which is not part of the Talmud) spoke in the same voice as Jesus and the apostles and applied no other methods of examining how this could be reasonably and rationally accomplished, then we would be making a terrible mistake. I don’t say this is done routinely, but in reading or listening to lessons such as D. Thomas Lancaster’s sermon series Holy Epistle to the Hebrews (which he has been conducting for well over a year and the series shows no signs of abating), we must be cautious to make sure that when we apply midrashic methods of studying the New Testament epistles, we are not projecting the later voices of the Rabbis backward in time, making the writer of Hebrews speak lessons that he (or she) would not have known or intended.

On the other hand, there is a way we can justify viewing Hebrews, or Paul’s epistles, or the Gospels, through a “midrashic lens,” or perhaps better said, a “mishnahic lens,” so to speak, and I think that’s the point of Dr. Blizzard’s book Mishnah and the Words of Jesus. Instead of starting in the future and working his way into the past, Blizzard begins with the scholars and sages contemporary to Jesus or appearing just before and after him historically, and then works his way forward. Blizzard suggests, and I agree with him, that the teachings of Jesus were understood as completely consistent with the way the various Rabbinic branches of the normative Judaisms of his day were teaching.

Continuing in Chapter 3, Dr. Blizzard writes:

In the Sermon on the Mount, recorded in Matthew 5 and following, Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.” Where did Jesus get that idea? Who are the meek? What does it mean to be meek? If we did not know that Jesus was a rabbi, speaking Hebrew, using rabbinic methods in his teaching, hinting back at something that has already been said or written, and that his listeners basically have all of this material memorized, we would not understand. (emph. mine)

And as I’ve said before I think most of us in the Church don’t understand. Instead of reading the teachings of the Master with an eye on these first century Jewish “rabbinic methods of teaching,” Christianity in all of its various flavors, imposes its own interpretive traditions on the text, forcing anachronistically, meanings onto and into the words of Jesus, Peter, Paul and the other New Testament teachers, that were formulated (at best) decades after the end of the Apostolic Era, but more than likely many, many centuries after, and these traditional interpretations are wholly detached from anything that would have occurred in the thoughts of Jesus and the apostles.

In Chapter 2: “Teaching, Tithing and Silence,” Blizzard states:

Perhaps we would all do well to heed Gamaliel’s injunction to provide ourselves with a teacher in he matter of tithing to relieve ourselves not just of doubt, but of the erroneous teaching that has been prevalent in the Church for over a thousand years. (emph. mine)

Hillel and ShammaiIn this instance, Dr. Blizzard is referencing associations between the teachings of Jesus as related to the Mishnah, specifically the sages Shammai, Hillel, and Gamaliel, as related to passages in Torah that speak of generosity and compassion toward the poor, which modern Judaism refers to as tzedakah or charity, but with the underlying meaning of justice and righteousness. However, I think Blizzard’s words can be applied to a much wider scope and indeed, to many of the common teachings of the Church about the meaning of the Bible, particularly in terms of the continuance of Torah in the lives of the Jewish people, the continuance of the Jewish people in God’s love and plans for the present and future, and the continuance of Judaism as a valid lifestyle by the Jewish people of devotion to and worship of the God of Israel.

If, on the other hand, the Church could see the strong parallels between the teachings of Jesus, his contemporaries, and those Rabbis who closely followed him in history, such as Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who was present at the fall of Jerusalem and is considered single-handedly responsible for formulating “the direction that Judaism would take” after the destruction of Herod’s Temple and the great exile of the Jewish people into the diaspora, then perhaps we could initiate a desperately needed corrective action in the Christian Church and in Christian hearts.

Blizzard emphasizes this in the following quote from Chapter 4: “The Will of the Father.”

How important it is that we study rabbinical literature, the sayings of the rabbis. The way in which they teach, the word pictures they paint, the images upon which they draw, because it gives us an understanding of the words of Jesus, the ideas, the concepts upon which he is drawing. In many instances, without a knowledge of this background, because of the images, the idioms, the metaphors, etc., so widely used by the sages and rabbis, we are unable to understand the depth, the meaning, of the words of Jesus.

It’s not only ironic but profoundly sad that most churches reject the very lessons and teachings that would enable the clergy and laity to understand Jesus Christ the most. By rejecting the teachings of the Mishnah which sit at the very heart of the various ancient and modern streams of Judaism, Christianity rejects the very heart of the meaning of the teachings of her Savior.

Chapter 4 of Blizzard’s brief but powerful book is a tour de force of comparisons between the specific teachings of Jesus and quotes from the different rabbis recording in the Mishnah. There are too many of them for me to record here, but fortunately, Blizzard’s book is quite affordable (especially the Kindle version, which can be downloaded in seconds), so I heartily recommend you purchase a copy and read it for yourself.

Not only is the Mishnah very Pharisaic, it is also very Pauline which, of course, is to be expected in view of the fact that Paul refers to himself as “a Pharisee of Pharisees.”

Blizzard shifts his focus at this point, from comparing the teachings of Jesus to the Mishnaic rabbis to making comparisons between the Mishnah and the Pharisaic Apostle Paul. Blizzard further states:

I want to emphasize that the ideas reflected here in the Chapters of the Fathers can be found in the teachings of all the New Testament writers, which, again, is just what we should expect. Why? Because they are all Jews. They all came from the same background, the same religious and spiritual heritage.

The Rebbe and the ChildBlizzard introduced the first chapter of this book, “Tzedakah and Righteousness,” by saying he intended to compare the teachings of Jesus to “the words of the rabbis prior to, and contemporary with, and following Jesus, recorded for us in the Mishnah, Order Nezikin, Tractate Avot…” and then he said something that especially attracted my attention:

In the teachings of Jesus, there is one underlying and overriding theme, a theme on which Jesus constantly dwells, a theme that serves as the foundation upon which biblical faith is built. If one looks at the Bible as a whole, if one includes additionally all Jewish literature that is extant, the Oral Law, the Written Law, the commentaries, and search for one, single, overriding theme that is the foundational theme of biblical faith, one would have to conclude that that foundational theme is summed up in the Hebrew word tzedakah… (emph. mine)

Blizzard follows the thread of tzedakah, which as I said, in Judaism is associated with charity, righteousness, and justice, through the teachings of Jesus, the rabbis of the Mishnah, and across the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings to paint an overarching landscape of God’s message to human beings.

This is a concept I harp on with some regularity; that we must engage the Bible as a single document that is inexorably interconnected, rather than “cherry pick” various verses and passages of scripture willy-nilly as they seem to map to our preconceived theologies and doctrines, and then string them together to create the illusion that the entire theme of the Bible is represented by those few bits and pieces we’ve jumbled into our religious collage. I think by now, most Christians realize that you can prove just about anything if you connect the dots between carefully selected words and phrases in the Bible. But that doesn’t mean the Bible as a cohesive unit really says what you are making it say.

I know. I could be accused of the same thing. After all, I have a point to prove just like everyone else. But although I think there’s a lot of truth in Blizzard’s belief that the Bible’s central theme is tzedakah, I have been trying to make the argument in my various blog posts, that the central theme is actually about God’s desire and His plan to unite all of humanity under a single King, and for God to dwell among His people without requiring that His Jewish people stop being Jewish or stop practicing Judaism in order to bring honor and glory to the Jewish Messiah and the God of Israel.

What is the central theme of the Bible according to the various streams of normative Christianity? Here’s a rather harsh sounding rebuke from Dr. Blizzard in Chapter One:

Jesus has become an idol, if you will, our focus of attention, our focus of worship, and it seems that very few think of God anymore. Seldom do we hear anyone speak of the glory of God, his grandeur and mercy, the holiness of God, and the other many attributes and characteristics of God.

I should mention at this point, that a good friend of mine, once a Jewish believer, has rejected Jesus as the Messiah, in part, because of what Dr. Blizzard said in the above-quoted paragraph. My friend spares no effort in explaining on his blog what he sees are the errors in Christianity.

Now before my Christian readers get really mad at Blizzard, he went on to say…

Please understand that I am not trying to lessen the importance of Jesus. What I am trying to do is emphasize that, in all the teachings of Jesus recorded for us in the gospels, his focus is not upon himself, what he is, what he is doing, or what he is to become. Additionally, Jesus has very little to say about God and, in particular, the Worship of God.

My point is that, in the teachings of Jesus, there is not all that much emphasis upward.

Blizzard then maps the teachings of Jesus and the sayings of the rabbis in the Mishnah, back to what he sees as the central emphasis of Jesus and of Judaism which is the care and concern for other human beings as the primary means of living our faith and worshiping God.

tzedakah-to-lifeIn addition to the focus on Jesus as Savior, the Church tends to focus on the concept of preaching the gospel, which translates into God’s personal plan of salvation for the elect. And that’s where it stops for a lot of churches. Fortunately, Blizzard’s rebuke of Christianity doesn’t include each and every church. Many churches, such as the one I currently attend, focus heavily on studying the Bible as a means of knowing how to serve God and other human beings, primarily through acts of charity and support of missionary efforts to some of the more desperately needy people groups on our planet.

In fact, one of the things some churches do really well are acts of tzedakah as well as something called Gemilut hasadim, which can be translated as acts of loving-kindness. Christians get the idea of grace from this Hebrew term. The difference is that tzedakah or acts of charity can be performed only on the poor, while gemilut hasadiam, which involves giving money or a personal service, can be done for anyone.

However, Blizzard’s distinctly “Jewish” presentation of these concepts alongside the teachings of Jesus and the Mishnah, provide an exceptionally fresh look at an essential something that often goes stale in many churches or in many individual Christian hearts. By linking something that the church actually does with how vital those actions are in ancient and modern Judaism, Blizzard successfully creates a link between what else is vital in Judaism, especially the Judaism of the time period around the Apostolic Era, and what the Church isn’t doing and isn’t teaching because these are things the Church has ultimately dismissed as having been “nailed to the cross” with Jesus.

Roy Blizzard’s book Mishnah and the Words of Jesus is a perfect example of why I find it absolutely necessary to access my faith in Christ by way of studying Judaism and, in my case, particularly Messianic Judaism. I’m certainly not Jewish, but it is quite possible and even desirable to be a Christian and to study Messianic Judaism in order to understand and then practice what I learn from the Bible.

Roy Blizzard
Dr. Roy B. Blizzard

There were quite a number of other gems in Blizzard’s book, but I should limit my review, not only for the sake of length, but to permit readers such as you to allow “Mishnah and the Words of Jesus” to unfold itself in your own experience.

However, I do want to say something else in wrapping up this blog post. It may sound like I’m distinctly “anti-Church” and interestingly enough, “anti-Christian,” even though I identify myself as a Christian, a disciple of Christ or Messiah. This isn’t actually true. While I point to the warts and moles I see on the Church and which, for the most part, the Church choses to ignore, I also see the beauty that has been maintained among those whose highest goal is to wholeheartedly serve Jesus Christ by serving humankind.

I’ve written God Was In Church Today and In Defense of the Church recently as much to remind myself as to remind everyone else that the Church is good. But in the words of Boaz Michael of First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ), “the Church needs to change.” Hopefully, scholars such as Dr. Roy Blizzard, Messianic Jews such as Boaz Michael, and even ordinary, everyday people like you and me, can contribute to that change for the sake of Israel and in the service of God.

One final thing. At the top of this blog post, I quoted Ismar Schorsch briefly commenting on Midrash. It is true that Midrash and Mishnah are not the same thing but they do have something in common. They both represent a way of thinking about God and a way of communicating about God as we study the Bible. You can study the Bible apart from any acceptance and understanding of the rabbinic sages and still learn a lot, but I believe you will not only miss a great deal of important detail in your study, but you’ll perpetuate a system of misunderstanding the Bible’s panoramic message, especially about God, Israel, the Jewish people, Judaism, and the role we non-Jews play as the crowning jewels of the nations. For the sake of Israel, and for the sake of the return of the Messianic King, we owe it to ourselves, to the Church, to Israel, and to God to learn all we can learn by setting aside our “institutionalized Christian learning,” and stepping outside the box, so to speak. If you’re not sure how to begin, Dr. Roy Blizzard’s Mishnah and the Words of Jesus is a good place to start.


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